Hugh Stewart was born at Premnay, East Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on 1 September 1884, the son of Margaret Mackintosh and her husband, John Stewart, the parish’s Presbyterian minister. After excelling at the village school he won a scholarship to Fettes College in Edinburgh. He was a friendly boy with a 'rather whimsical’ sense of humour and a determined air. In 1904, after spending a year at the University of Edinburgh, Stewart won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. He completed a BA with first-class honours in the Classical tripos in 1907. A somewhat reserved young man with conservative political views and an adventurous spirit, he spent much of the next two years working in Russia as an English tutor. He learnt Russian and wrote a book, Provincial Russia, based on his experiences.
Stewart was appointed an assistant lecturer in Classics at the University of Liverpool in 1909. Three years later he arrived in New Zealand to take up appointment as professor of Classics at Canterbury College, Christchurch. Described as a 'brilliant teacher of abundant energy and wit’, he was a respected scholar who could inspire students with his love of Classics and literature. His physical strength and endurance were also prodigious, and he relished climbing in the Southern Alps.
Stewart had served in the British territorial force, and on the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Canterbury Battalion, New Zealand Infantry Brigade. His strong Scottish accent and serious approach to his duties did not at first endear him to his men, but during the Gallipoli campaign he won their respect and admiration as a courageous officer who cared deeply about their welfare. During bitter hand-to-hand fighting at Quinn’s Post in June 1915 he returned to the fray after being wounded in the head – an action he later described as ‘rather silly’.
A ‘born soldier and leader of men’, Stewart was promoted to captain in August and to major in October 1915. His gallantry and exceptional leadership at Gallipoli were recognised by the award of the Military Cross, the French Croix de guerre and a mention in dispatches. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in February 1916 and the following month took command of the newly formed 2nd Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment. Serving on the western front for the next two years, he proved to be a most capable battalion commander who believed in tight discipline and careful planning.
On 21 February 1918 Hugh Stewart married Alexandrina Kathleen Johnston at Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, England. In mid November he was promoted to colonel and appointed director of education for the NZEF, a post he held until the end of February 1919. In appreciation of his outstanding service in France, Stewart was appointed a CMG and a DSO and bar; he had been mentioned in dispatches on four occasions. Early in 1919 he was commissioned by the government to write the history of the New Zealand Division. His carefully researched account, The New Zealand Division 1916–1919: a popular history based on official records, was well received when it appeared in 1921.
At the end of 1919 Stewart returned to New Zealand and was transferred to the reserve of officers. His wife Alexandrina died in November 1920, 14 days after giving birth to a son, Michael. A month later Stewart wrote a moving letter addressed to his son describing his beloved wife so that Michael would know something of her if he too should die before the boy grew up.
Returning to his post at Canterbury College, Stewart was now more interested in administration than teaching, but academic politics ruined his prospects of becoming the college’s rector. In 1926 he left New Zealand to become professor of Latin at the University of Leeds. His departure necessitated his resignation as dominion president of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association and as commanding officer of the 3rd New Zealand Infantry Brigade. On 28 July 1927 Stewart married Margaret Rosamond Poulton at Kinlet, Shropshire, England. Tragically she died, along with the couple’s newborn son, during childbirth in August 1928.
Hugh Stewart enhanced his standing as a teacher and administrator at Leeds, and in 1929 he was appointed principal of University College, Nottingham, where he established a reputation as the ‘most able leader and administrator the College ever had’. On 9 April 1930 he married Margaret Isabel Massey in London; they were to have a daughter and a son. Stewart died suddenly at sea on 28 September 1934 while returning from a holiday in New Zealand aboard the Akaroa. He was survived by his wife and children. He is commemorated at the University of Nottingham by Hugh Stewart Hall and a scholarship.
Hugh Stewart was described as ‘a brave, strong man, capable of fearlessly enduring much bodily and mental strain’. In a life marked by both public achievement and personal tragedy he showed himself to be a forceful and talented individual, with a modest, compassionate and generous nature.